The Big Departure is a powerful episode of Dragnet that really does the best job of showing Dragnet’s view of America. While, it may not top everyone’s list, it’s a personal favorite of mine for its wonderful message.
Dragnet is often accused of being a forum where Jack Webb pushed his political views. However, Dragnet’s ideas were not seen as all that political at the time. What we know of Webb’s personal politics is really quite limited. What we can say safely of Webb’s political beliefs was that he was anti-Communist, supportive of the Civil Rights movement, and pro-law enforcement. However, this episode provides a good view of Webb on America.
The episode tells of Friday and Gannon encountering a young gang of thieves who look down on society and plan to flee to island to start a just, peaceful, and moral nation. To this end, they begin robbing stores to acquire needed supplies and injuring anyone who stood in their way. (Irony alert.)
In the interrogation room, Friday and Gannon confronted the younsters to get them to help them get the rest of the gang, and challenged them. Michael Hayde pointed out that the Big Departure was actually of a 1957 TV episode, “The Big Constitution” where the miscreants were draft dodgers and that Webb’s talk had a different tone as “The Big Departure” had a message of working within the American system.
“The Big Departure” really was born of its times. The 1960s radicals, many of whom in one form or another urged young people to tune out. There were all types of opportunities to destructively turn away from a society with its troubles. There was the drug culture, hippy communes, and terrorist organizations like the Weather Underground, all of which urged people to tune out of traditional American processes and in many cases, to violate the laws of the land.
In “The Big Departure,” Friday and Gannon don’t bother arguing that America is perfect, rather they argue that its worthwhile and that the boys need to engage in life, not run away from it:
Friday: Don’t think you have a corner on all the virtue vision in the country or that everyone else is fat and selfish and yours is the first generation to come along that’s felt dissatisfied–they all have, you know, about different things; and most of them didn’t have the opportunity and freedoms that you have.
“Let’s talk poverty. In most parts of the world, that’s not a problem, it’s a way of life. And rights? They’re liable to give you a blank stare because they may not know what you’re talking about.
“The fact is, more people are living better right here than anyone else ever before in history. So don’t expect us to roll over and play dead when you say you’re dissatisfied. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great deal better than when we grew up: a hundred men standing in the street hoping for one job; selling apples on the street corner– that’s one of the things we were dissatisfied about; and you don’t see that much anymore…”
GANNON: “Don’t think we’re telling you to lose your ideals or your sense of outrage. They’re the only way things ever get done. And there’s a lot more that still needs doing. And we hope you’ll tackle it.
“You don’t have to do anything dramatic like coming up with a better country. You can find enough to keep you busy right here.
“In the meantime, don’t break things up in the name of progress or crack a placard stick over someone’s head to make him see the light. Be careful of his rights. Because your property and your person and your rights aren’t any better than his. And the next time you may be the one to get it.
Webb understood what it was to be angry about injustice. When he was 26, he made a radio series, “One Out of Seven” that dealt with racial prejudice and intolerance. By 1968, the situation had begun to improve. But, this only happened because people worked to make things better, not escaping to a fantasy land.
“The Big Departure” may be the most timeless episode of Dragnet. After each of the the last few elections, the Internet has filled with webpages declaring apocalypse. Many send around e-mails suggesting that states secede or threatening to move to another country or starting a commune because their candidate lost.
While this may have an appeal, Joe Friday’s advice makes more sense.:
Don’t try to build a new country. Make this one work. It has for over four hundred years; and by the world’s standards, that’s hardly more than yesterday.
And the strong hopeful message of this episode makes it my personal favorite.